Bach / Coffee Cantata (BWV 211)

Emma Kirkby is one of those singers whose appeal, in intellectual terms, I understand. I can appreciate her artistry and the quality of the musicianship and even why people enjoy her voice itself. I also appreciate what she did for the whole ‘historically informed performance’ thing. And back in the 70s-80s she had some seriously badass red hippie hair.

At the same time, there is some combination of the voice and the style that just rubs me the wrong way. I am in the minority here, and that’s fine. But there it is.

I was reminded of this effect Kirkby has on me when I listened to this recording recently, which is of Dorothea Röschmann and a few other people singing three of Bach’s secular cantatas. Emma Kirkby is not on it, but there is a connection between it and her.

There is plenty of charm to this recording. This is very early Röschmann – it was recorded in 1994. She sounds startlingly young. The voice is much lighter, without that focused intensity it later gained. The vibrato too is different, partly because she’s singing Bach and thus uses less of it (historically informed performance!) and partly because I don’t think she really had that immediately recognizable Röschmann vibrato until a few years after this.

More to the point, one of the things she sings on this recording is the piece that initially made me recoil from Emma Kirkby: BWV 211, the ‘Coffee cantata.’ The ‘Coffee cantata,’ also known by its opening line ‘Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht’ / ‘be still, shut your yap’ (this is a very colloquial translation and I do not recommend it) is basically a miniature German opera buffa derived from eighteenth-century consumer culture.

Here is the cantata in question:

This is not one of my favorite Bach pieces ever. As noted, my first experience with it was on this CD by Emma Kirkby and two other singers whose names I forget right now. My reaction was, well, this is sort of annoying. But since it might have been Kirkby who was annoying me and not Bach, I did a sort of controlled experiment and listened to Röschmann, Hughes Saint-Gelais and Kevin Macmillan sing it with Bernard Labadie and the Violons du Roy. This is a controlled experiment because one thing Röschmann never is is annoying. I am aware that some people don’t like her Countess and others just aren’t grabbed by her sound in general and that’s fine, but annoying she is not. German seriousness and all that. (Or, perhaps specifically Dorothea Röschmann seriousness. I have met a few frivolous Germans, so clearly it isn’t a uniform national characteristic.)

Anyway. If there were any conditions under which BVW 211 would not annoy me, it would be Dorothea Röschmann conditions. And the verdict is that while she doesn’t, it still does, sort of. The second aria, “Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse” (4.09) with the accompanying flute is rather sweet, but the fact that it rings the changes on ‘coffee, coffee, coffee I must have’ is surprisingly distracting. My favorite part of this is actually the flute part, now that I listen to it again. Or rather, the interplay of the soprano/flute lines.

The father’s “Mädchen, die von harten Sinnen” aria (9.40) is appropriately serious. The lumbering continuo part reminds me, weirdly enough, of “Der, welcher wandert diese Strasse voll beschwerden” in The Magic Flute, but that is neither here nor there. “Heute noch” (13.35) is graceful and girlish, but it lacks a little of the tongue-in-cheek humor I expect here. The final trio (21.09) is crisp and not slapsticky. And the flute is back! The flute is kind of an extra character. I approve of the flute. (The flutist is André Papillon.)

My point is that there’s nothing obviously wrong with the performance. Whatever lack of enthusiasm I have about this is probably intrinsic to the piece itself. The humor in this bears a certain resemblance to the humor in Schubert’s Der Hochzeitsbraten. I feel a little bit beaten over the head with it. Then again, ‘Der Hochzeitsbraten’ tends to get stuck in my head at bizarrely inopportune moments, so there must be something to it on some level.

Anyway, I find I do better with BWV 211 if I do my best to switch off the German comprehension and just listen to it as chamber music. This is difficult at times, because “coffee, coffee muss ich haben” is sort of hard to miss as sentences go. But if I put my mind to it I can do it. On some level I am probably doing violence to the music here, because I think one of the unwritten Rules of Music Appreciation is that you are not supposed to try not to understand something, but since we have already determined that cops do not listen to Bach I am probably safe.

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